Really great, succinct New Yorker piece about torture and the Abu Ghraib investigations. I think this is very sharp–it articulates a couple of important points; one, that the Abu Ghraib reports were not a fluke and, as indicatrors of much larger problems with American policy, should have been a moment for serious reflection and reform; secondly, that torture is really under-examined (surprisingly so, I think) along the dimensions of morality, humanity, and what we as a country feel we can tolerate.

Yet it became almost immediately apparent—and has been confirmed repeatedly in the years since, most recently with President Obama’s decision to release four Bush Administration memorandums seeking to establish a legal justification for the use of torture—that the Abu Ghraib photographs showed not individuals run amok but American policy in action. (From those memos, we now know that Bush Administration lawyers had a technical term for what Charles Graner called bashing a man against a wall. The term is “walling.”)

The natural first reaction on seeing the photographs of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners in Saddam Hussein’s old dungeons was to ask: Why are we doing such things to them? With time, however, Americans have come increasingly to understand that it is equally appropriate to ask: Why are we doing such things to ourselves? Why dismantle the laws that have made our country worth fighting and dying for against states that torture? Former Vice-President Dick Cheney has said that we must torture because it is effective. That is, at best, a false argument: a crime is not absolved just because it works. (After all, terrorism can be effective.) President Obama, in his press conference last week, cut through the noise to the essence of the issue. Torture, he said, “corrodes the character of a country.”

Here’s the full article if you’re interested.

-S

Infrastructure improvements? Out of my cold, dead hands.

Infrastructure improvements? Out of my cold, dead hands!

Aristotle’s fundamental political binary categorizes governments as either true or perverted, a means of characterization that, however simplistic, still holds water in examining modern political moments. Among his criteria for true government is the requirement for the ruling body to “govern with a view to the common interest.” A ruler in such a state is concerned only with advancing the condition of his subjects.

Perversion of government by trivial individualized issues is, unfortunately, all too common within our federal government. The election of Barack Obama to the Presidency, while producing a tangible change in attitude towards the manipulation of government for personal ends, failed to eliminate the sort of self-interest that drove O’Connor to throw the 2000 election to Bush on the basis of political passion and a selfish desire to retire.

The recent political grandstanding by Republican governors Jindal of Louisiana, Sanford of South Carolina and Palin of Alaska serves as a potent example of personal ambitions and aspirations getting in the way of the public good. President Obama’s recent economic recovery and reinvestment package was designed to cushion the blow of the current economic calamity on the middle class while jump-starting the nation’s productivity and financial stability. Governors Jindal, Sanford and Palin, all hoping to capture the Republican Presidential nomination, have all publicly refused to accept important portions of the stimulus funds for their states. Though the governors cite a perceived advent of “big government,” “tax-and-spend liberalism” and “socialism” for their refusal of these vital funds, politicians, pundits and laymen alike realize the personal reasons behind the refusal of this money.

Governor Jindal, for example, appeared on national television mocking stimulus funding for disaster readiness barely four years after the deplorable federal response to Hurricane Katrina. The governors, pandering to their political base in order to secure their place at the top of the 2012 ticket, are ignoring the urgent needs of their constituents in order to advance their own careers. 

Aristotle’s characterization of such perversions? Tyranny.

Take that, teabaggers.

– A-$

The RNC’s 2009 Membership Survey is a wonder to behold. The same people who have bemoaned and blasted the “liberal media elite” for its skewed perspective and unbalanced coverage continue to prove themselves incapable of neutral discourse and totally shut off to new ideas.

In the email accompanying the survey, Michael Steele instructs members to “be honest and candid in your answers–there’s no need to sugar-coat your responses after our Party’s performances in the last two elections.” But what followed was a poorly constructed, unabashedly biased questionnaire that will simply spoon-feed the RNC whatever it wants to hear.

The first few questions were promising. Although they contained responses with which I disagreed, and left out a few important ones, they all came with an “other” box so that we could diplomatically democratically First-Amendmently write in our own answers.

Things quickly disintegrated into questions like the following:

5. Should Republicans unite to block new federal government bureaucracy and red tape that will crush future economic growth?
Yes, No, Undecided.

Should Republicans unite against battle droid technology and the Separatist forces of evil that will crush the Galactic Empire…FOREVER!? Yes or no will suffice.

I can’t see many less-informed Republicans voting Yes, I should like to see more red tape crush future economic growth. What kind of useful data is gathered from this question? Are there really more pro-economy-crushing liberals than conservatives?

9. Should we resist Barack Obama’s proposal to spend billions of federal taxpayer dollars to pay “volunteers” who perform his chosen tasks?

Expanding and institutionalizing public service does not amount to the creation of an army of Obama-minions performing his “chosen tasks.” What about a real conversation about the future of public service in this country? From those who might fear that public service may in fact become a billion-dollar operation to carry out Barack Obama’s personal agenda, what about a call for greater oversight?

11. Should bureaucrats in Washington, DC be in charge of making your health care choices instead of you and your doctor?
Once again, this question sidesteps the substance of the issue. It’s almost insulting to the reader. In addition, the GOP has repeatedly tried to interfere with health care provider’s right to provide complete and accurate information to patients about reproductive services and other issues.

Other questions are phrased just as ludicrously. One refers to the “so-called ‘fairness doctrine. Another accuses Obama of trying to “gut the USA PATRIOT Act and other important laws that promote the safety and security of all Americans,” never mind that the PATRIOT Act was the biggest intrusion of government into the rights and lives of citizens in recent history, and I didn’t know anyone was still defending it. The survey names names, making villains out of Democrats instead, once again, of providing real information or gathering real feedback on the issues.

The language of the survey is childish, mocking, and hateful, and it interferes with the exchange of real information. A membership survey is not in itself the problem, but it provides good insight into the problems we run into discussing government policy.

I heard an interesting/excellent lecture the other day on public policy and the media. Among other things, the speaker brought up the obvious transition from “traditional” media to new media (Huff Post, Drudge, blogs). New media is much less centrist than traditional media, and we also decide based on personal preference which online media sources we will be exposed to. So we increasingly run into “selective exposure bias,” in which we seek out news sources that confirm our pre-existing political beliefs. And as a result we become, unsurprisingly, even more partisan.

Reading that survey was fairly alarming but, in light of the above ideas, somewhat eye-opening. We’re less and less exposed to perspectives and information and might challenge our own. There’s really no issue right now that isn’t highly polarized, so much that conversation isn’t about the exchange of ideas so much as fiercely defending one’s pre-existing beliefs. Scary.

This was wordy like no other. Thanks for hanging in there.

-S

It’s all about reaction, people.

RNC Chairman Michael Steele (apologies to Jon Stewart)

RNC Chairman Michael Steele (apologies to Jon Stewart)

Apparently, when one teaches an old dog new tricks, the dog repeats said tricks ad nauseum. After the Dems gave us Hillary, the Republicans gave us Caribou Barbie. After Jesus Himself gave us Barack Obama (full disclosure: I am a Jew), the Republicans gave us Michael Steele.  

The problem is that whilst a character like  Steele may “be da man,” he is essentially an awkward copycat. Steele and Palin (hereafter known as “Peele”) are the Leno to the Democrats’ Carson or, if you will, the Cialis to the Democrats’ Viagra. The Nation’s Ari Melber explains this quite beautifully:

“Obama’s comfort with that culture, and endorsements from its leaders, has earned him generational credibility. When Obama channeled Jay-Z on the campaign trail to brush the “dirt” of petty attacks off his shoulders, young people knew exactly what he meant. Older television pundits did not get the reference. Some even conceded their confusion while blasting the gesture as “contemptuous,” (as theWashington Post reported at the time). Obama invoked hip-hop deftly and accurately. He played on the theme that being tough does not mean you respond to every attack. Just as Jay-Z confidently brushes away his enemies, and hip-hop culture scolds the “haters” who pillory successful people, Obama signaled that his political approach–transcending trench warfare and pessimistic snark–was cool, current and strong.

Now contrast that to Steele’s gimmicky foray into dusty LPs. Here is his debut in the New York Times after assuming the chairmanship: ” ‘It’s going to be an honor to spar with [Obama],’ he said, before throwing down the gauntlet to Mr. Obama with a quotation from… a rap song by Kool Moe Dee: ‘How ya like me now?’ ”

First of all, what is he talking about? How does the president like a former lieutenant governor now that he’s become chairman of the opposition party? It doesn’t even make sense. Second, the album is twenty-two years old, so this reference does not exactly resonate with young people.

The spectacle got more awkward when Steele offered Bobby Jindal some “slum love” for doing a “friggin’ awesome job” as governor of Louisiana, in an ABC radio interview. As the Wonkette blog pointed out, this mess of a shoutout was actually coaxed out of Steele, based on his proclivity for questionable slang. All this heavy-handed hip-hop may make him “da man” for fellow travelers like Rep. Bachman. To young people, Steele just looks like he’s fronting.”

The real joke is that the Republicans honestly think that this song-and-dance will work! While I applaud their idealism purely in the spirit of LOLs, following this absurd path during the greatest economic calamity since the Great Depression does nothing but harm our country. It’s tempting to cheer on the Limbaughs, Bachmans and Steeles of the world, but continued detachment from the issues at hand is a frightening prospect. With both parties focused on constructing sound solutions for the crisis at hand, we can always stand to strengthen our nation.

Remember, Obama doesn’t need these kind of hilarious antics to get re-elected in ’12. His ability to “transcend trench warfare and pessimistic snark” ensures victory on principle rather than by contrast. An elevated dialogue would just further showcase his incredible abilities.

Besides, he can always leave the snark to me.

– A-$